Donald Trump's new social network has “highly suspect” Brazil ties, claims watchdog group

Watchdog group suggests Trump did favors for Bolsonaro regime in exchange for help launching his media venture

By Igor Derysh

Senior News Editor

Published December 9, 2021 6:00AM (EST)

Then-President Donald Trump with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on March 7, 2020. ( Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Then-President Donald Trump with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on March 7, 2020. ( Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

A government watchdog group on Thursday called on Congress to investigate whether former President Donald Trump used the power of his presidency to help lay the groundwork for his planned social network before leaving office.

In October, Trump announced the launch of a social network and media platform through Digital World Acquisition Corp., a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) that would merge with the newly-formed Trump Media & Technology Group. The SPAC, which has already come under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and other federal regulators amid scrutiny of its fluctuating stock price, was incorporated in December 2020, while Trump was still in office, according to Delaware records. The SPAC's chief financial officer is Brazilian lawmaker Luiz Philippe de Orléans e Braganza, a close ally of right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, sometimes described as the "Trump of the Tropics." 

Around the same time as the SPAC was formed, Trump made several moves to benefit the Bolsonaro regime and the Brazilian president returned the favor, endorsing Trump ahead of his failed re-election bid. Trump struck a trade deal with Brazil before the 2020 election and declared Brazil a "major non-NATO ally" while removing COVID-based travel restrictions previously imposed on the South American nation.

The left-leaning government watchdog Accountable.US on Thursday called on the House Oversight and Reform Committee to "investigate potential efforts by President Donald J. Trump to deliver Brazil-friendly policies in the waning days of his presidency in exchange for help from key allies of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in getting his recently announced social media venture off the ground," in a letter shared with Salon.

"Misuse of the highest office in the land for personal gain threatens the very foundation of our nation's democracy," Accountable.US President Kyle Herrig wrote to Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and ranking member James Conner, R-Iowa. "In order to uphold our most fundamental values and do right by the American people, we believe the committee must investigate if, and to what extent, Donald Trump abused his office for his own benefit — along with Bolsonaro's."

RELATED: Inside the "weird" world of DWAC, Trump's already soaring social media SPAC

Trump's new media company, which will include a social network called TRUTH Social, will be helmed by retiring Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., a longtime Trump ally. The news broke the same week a filing revealed that the SEC and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority are investigating the Digital World Acquisition Corp. and have requested information related to stock trading that preceded Trump's October announcement, as well as documents related to board meetings and identities of certain investors.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called for the SEC to investigate whether Digital World Acquisition Corp. "committed securities violations by holding private and undisclosed discussions about the merger as early as May 2021 while omitting this information" from public filings.

Others have raised concerns that the new Trump-centric company has provided little information about its products despite touting massive projections in its pitch deck to investors. The company has already missed its first product deadline to release a beta version of TRUTH Social, raising questions about how legitimate the venture actually is. The structure of the SPAC has raised concerns that investors could use the opportunity to buy their way into Trump's favor ahead of a likely 2024 presidential campaign, including foreign investors who could potentially pose a national security threat. The company's shares soared 1,657% after the Trump announcements but have since fallen to $75 a share, about $100 below the October peak of $175.

While in office, Trump had a distinctly friendly relationship with Bolsonaro. Many observers in Brazil believed that Bolsonaro had "privileged access to the White House" and no previous Brazilian president had ever "made his resemblance to and friendship with his U.S. counterpart such a central element," Americas Quarterly reported last year.

Trump backed Bolsonaro in 2019 when the Brazilian leader came under heavy criticism from world leaders over the extensive and uncontrolled fires burning in the Amazon rain forest. Less than a month before his election loss, Trump's administration signed a new trade deal with Brazil. In January, the Trump administration designated Brazil a "major non-NATO ally," which makes countries eligible for loans, military agreements and other benefits. On Jan. 18, 2021, just two days before leaving office, Trump ordered an end to the ban on travelers from Brazil due to COVID, which President Biden later reimposed after taking office. Earlier this year, Trump endorsed Bolsonaro's re-election bid.

A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.

Philippe, who is known in Brazil as "the prince" because of his ancestral ties to Brazil's last emperor, who ruled more than a century ago, has aligned himself with many of Bolsonaro's and Trump's authoritarian tendencies. After being elected to the Brazilian parliament in 2018, one of his first proposals was to create an unelected head of state with the power to overrule the legislature's decisions. After last year's presidential election, Philippe praised Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani for pushing baseless election fraud claims. Earlier this year, he published a video of Steve Bannon attending a conference in Brazil where Trump's former strategist claimed that "globalists" would try to steal the upcoming election from Bolsonaro. Several other Trump allies have helped the Brazilian leader stoke Trump-style conspiracy theories, claiming possible fraud before any votes are cast. Philippe later posted a photo of himself standing next to Trump after the SPAC deal was announced.

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"Documents from Digital World Acquisition Corp evidence Philippe's involvement in the SPAC since at least when it went public in May 2021, suggesting that he was an early addition to the SPAC's leadership," Herrig wrote to the Oversight Committee, arguing that the timing of the SPAC launch, the hiring of Philippe and the pursuit of pro-Bolsonaro policies raise serious questions about potential conflicts of interest.

Digital World Acquisition Corp. did not respond to a request for comment. The New York Times previously reported that Trump was in talks on a deal since at least March, well before the company went public in September.

Herrig called on the committee to investigate whether Trump used the power of his office to arrange a deal with Bolsonaro or his allies and whether he discussed plans for the company during official meetings with Bolsonaro and his allies while still in office.

A spokesperson for the committee did not reply to a request for comment.

"The American people deserve to know if Trump used the power of his office to arrange a deal with Bolsonaro or top members of Brazil's government to help get his company off the ground in exchange for pushing policies that would benefit the Bolsonaro regime," Herrig said in a statement to Salon. "The timeline is highly suspect and Congress needs to get to the bottom of exactly what happened. If the former president once again put his own business interests ahead of the needs of American families, those involved must be held accountable."

Read more on Trump's social media venture and the Bolsonaro regime in Brazil:

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's senior news editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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